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Annie Dillard: The Writing Life
on 12 December 2003
If like me, you thought this title held real pragmatic promise for aspiring writers, you may be disappointed, as I was, to reach the end but feeling not much the wiser for doing so.
I had been looking for an insightful guide to the mechanics of writing and among the competition this seemed the best bet. Respecting Dillard's past work gave me some genuine reason for hope that I would not be disappointed in her approach. I was also expectant of tapping that same creative and highly metaphorical vein that runs through Dillard's prose.
Perhaps you are looking for the same river. However, one has to prospect ruthlessly to find gold near the surface in The Writing Life. Like her other works, one has to go deeper than the seam to find the gem among the ordinary grit. As far as helpful material for the writer is concerned, even the deep yielded little for me. The exception to this is, is undoubtedly Chapter 5, where she finally comes the nearest to translating her thoughts into the vernacular of the general reader by highlighting the external factors that form the writer's style and vision. Her observations and comments here do shed some light on her own inimitable way of writing and also give light into a book, that up to that point, had me groping for other 'light' relief. The rest deals more with the cause and effect of (her) writing, rather than rooting out causes and artistically penning the effects.
Despite its highly anecdotal and at times self-indulgent structure, The Writing Life does allow you to enter some of Dillard's wrestling to bring her heart to her subject matter, a task she executes consistently with vivacity and conviction. Like her other writings, it is Dillard bringing all those loose elements into a contained whole and finding her own voice to articulate the mystical process. Don't get me wrong; I admire Annie Dillard and her style. 'Pilgrim At Tinker Creek' forced me to live life, not merely exist in it and for that and her other books, I am grateful.
As an additional reader to the Dillard library I strongly recommend it. But, it is more accurate to frame it as, 'Dillard: The Writer', rather than, 'Dillard's Guide To Writing', or the title it now wears. By it on the former premise and you will discover much of the forming of Dillard and the natural rhythm that permeates her writing. By it on the later, as a pragmatic, 'how-to' and you will know how she does it, but still be left asking a lot of the fundamental questions of 'how'.